March 10, 2014
Corey Grant on the run against Missouri in the 2013 SEC Championship Game (USA Today photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – As last season unfolded and Tre Mason took off on the most prolific season in Auburn history, Cameron Artis-Payne made the most of limited opportunities, rushing 91 times for 610 yards and six touchdowns.
And now his time has come.
Artis-Payne, a senior who transferred to Auburn last summer from Allen Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif., will go into spring practice next week with an opportunity to assume the role Mason played in Auburn’s drive to the BCS Championship Game. He’ll compete with junior Corey Grant and redshirt freshman Peyton Barber in the spring. Freshmen Roc Thomas and Kamryn Pettway will arrive in the summer.
“At a major program like this, you are always going to have running backs who can play,” Artis-Payne said. “At the end of the day, I just feel like I’m not going to lose. I’m not worried about competition. I’m worried about focusing on what I have to do to have the year I want to have.”
For Payne, that means making his own place in the storied history of Auburn running backs and winning the national championship that got away in the final 13 seconds of a 34-31 loss to Florida State on Jan. 6.
“That is definitely driving us,” Artis-Payne said. “We came so close to winning. Literally, 13 seconds away. To be that close and to walk out of there feeling like we were the better team and left a bunch of points on the field is definitely pushing everybody. We are going to take every game one at a time, but we’ve got a goal in mind as a team. We are pushing toward that.”
And along the way, Payne says, he wants to do something no running back in Southeastern Conference history has done. He’s worked with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell and on his own to get faster and stronger. He weighs 212 pounds and has cut his body fat from 15 percent to 9 percent.
“I’m excited to show people what I can do,” Artis-Payne said. “I can talk about it, but I’d rather show it. I’m trying to be the first 2,000-yard running back in the SEC. That’s the plan.”
Grant, too, has worked overtime to prepare himself for the task ahead. For the first time since the 2009 season at Opelika High School, he had the opportunity last season to show off his world-class speed. He rushed 66 times for 647 yards, a gaudy 9.8 yards per carry, and scored six touchdowns.
Heading toward his junior season, he expects to play a similar role. But he believes he can do more.
“With Tre gone, Cam and I are going to compete,” Grant said. “I like that speed back role, but I think I can bring more to the table. Peyton is a great back, too. When he gets a chance, he’s going to surprise everybody.”
Grant, who started his career at Alabama and transferred to Auburn before the 2011 season, says the bitter memory of the BCS Championship Game drives him every day.
“It’s a big motivation,” Grant said. “I think about it every day. If we could just have those 13 seconds back. To know we got there and know we are going to get back pushes me every day.
“All the guys have been working hard. Even the young guys are working hard. I think we are even more prepared than we were last year at this point. Guys understand the expectations, and we are just ready to work and have another great season.”
Grant got just nine carries as a sophomore in 2012 and wondered if his chance would ever come. But Gus Malzahn arrived as head coach in December of that year and everything changed.
“Actually being able to play and contribute and feeling like I helped out the team, it feels a lot different now,” Grant said. “I knew Coach Malzahn would find ways to get his playmakers on the field.”
Barber, at 5-foot-11, will go into spring practice at some 230 pounds. He spent last season working with the scout team and with Russell. And he got the attention of running backs coach Tim Horton.
Last season, Barber volunteered to work with the scout team.
“Most of the time they don’t want to go to the scout team because they are going to get hit a lot,” Horton said. “He didn’t flinch. He went down there and he made our defense better, because they were going against a quality, quality back. I think it helped them and I think it helped Peyton. To me, it showed a kid whose attitude I really like.”
Cameron Artis-Payne breaks away for a touchdown against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game (USA Today photo)
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: